The last public hanging in America is a part of Owensboro history

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It’s a day that’s not celebrated but one some say needs to be remembered.

The last public hanging in America took place 82 years ago in downtown Owensboro.

It’s something that’s not often talked about but is a part of not only local history, but national history as well.

It’s hard for many to imagine someone being hanged in public, but in 1936 that was a legal form of execution and thousands from all across the country came to Owensboro to witness it firsthand.

Walking through downtown Owensboro today you’d see nothing but growth. There are new hotels, a new convention center, and the family-friendly Smothers Park.  But, you’d never know that once you reach the stop sign at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Veterans Blvd that you were standing in the spot that put Owensboro on the front of every major newspaper in every major city.

“He was 22 years old. He was from somewhere in Virginia,” recalls Keith Lawrence.

Lawrence, a veteran reporter for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer has researched and many times written about the hanging of Rainey Bethea, a young man accused of raping and murdering an elderly woman.

“He confessed to it two or three times,” said Lawrence.

Bethea was only convicted on the rape charge and was sentenced to death by hanging.

The execution immediately drew national headlines because the sheriff of Daviess County at the time was a woman.

“There were thousands of people that you could see throughout this area,“ said David Wolfe.

Wolfe has written a book, in part, about the hanging.  He also leads historical tours of downtown Owensboro and is often asked about the events of that day.

“I figured they would hate this story and they actually don’t. They want to hear it,” said Wolfe of those taking his tour in Owensboro.

When Bethea was walked to the gallows around 5:30 a.m. he was surrounded by a crowd of up to 20,000 people.  Some say it was a carnival-like atmosphere complete with hotdogs and drinks being sold.  

Lawrence recalls once interviewing a downtown Owensboro restaurant owner who decided to join the crowd that morning.

“He walked over there to see it and said he was expecting to see this big, strapping guy. This guy looked like a little kid,” said Lawrence. “He said, ‘I just couldn’t stay,’ he said, I hung that man in my dreams for months.”

The same could be said for that female sheriff, who Wolfe says, ended up watching the hanging from about a block away.

“In fact, when she got home her son was sitting on the steps, he was not allowed to go, and he said, ‘Mom how was it and she said, it’s horrific.”

Bethea is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro in an unmarked grave.

Lawrence said that was the last time a Daviess County jury has handed down a death penalty.

Death by hanging is still legal in three states, but the execution cannot be public.

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(This story was originally published August 14, 2018)

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